Bindu Didimoni, as everyone called her in our small town, had spent her life punishing high school girls. For thirty years and more, she had worked as the headmistress of Kanaklata Memorial Girls’ High School, the one and only institution of basic public education for girls in our town. Kneeling down with our hands held high in the air in the middle of the school assembly, squatting like hens with our fingers touching the lobes of our ears inside classrooms reserved for girls much younger than us, making us stand with our tongues sticking out outside the school-gate for all passersby to see; she had made us do them all. From the punishment epics each one of jotted down in our heads, we would deliberately exclude such minor details as standing on the bench or lining up in the hallway facing the wall. Those were run of the mill, so to speak, and unworthy of Bindu Didimoni’s unique imagination. Unlike other teachers, who would use the cane or the back of their hands, Bindu Didimoni rarely used the stick. Instead, she specialized in postures, which had two effects on her victims—pain in the limbs and a very specific kind of humiliation that comes with being an exhibit for everyone to gawk at someone else’s misfortune. Didimoni is the word we used to refer to all our teachers. But none of them wore that appellation so perfectly like our Bindu Didimoni. So much so, that the entire town, even those who had never been her students, forgot that there could ever be a Bindu outside of that Didimoni.
It never occurred to us to categorize Bindu Didimoni as beautiful or ugly, as we did to our other teachers. But an effort to think back on it, a conscious attempt to pull apart her features, would reveal that she was indeed beautiful. A sharp chiseled nose, like a guava-leaf folded into two right across the middle. A thick bun covering the nape of her neck, small forehead, shiny hair, long, slender arms. But none of these mattered. Because, what stood out were her lips – pursed and unsmiling. Her frowning eyebrows. Her bespectacled eyes – angry and piercing, capable of slashing through each and every one of our unarticulated thoughts, plans and motivations.
Well-thumbed textbooks, crows cawing outside our study-table windows, stealthy glances at roadside boys while riding our bikes to school, mothers and aunts bickering with each other, the awkward sounds emanating from our parents’ rooms after midnight. A schoolgirl’s life is, by definition, unremarkable. Our lives were too. No war, no revolution disrupted the uneventful lives that we lead. In order to make up for that kind of tediousness, we gossiped about our teachers. Took note of the ways in which they dressed, used make up or or did not use it. The way their bra-straps showed through the thin fabric of their blouses, the way their pallus sometimes did not hide the contours of their breasts.
Except for our capacity to keep talking about others, we were quite ordinary. We did not organize school recitals, concerts and ceremonies, although we looked on with envy at the girls who did. We did not get the top grades in the exams, did not rank too high up in our class. None of us could write essays in Bengali with words which others would have to look up in the dictionary. We did not have great memories or beautiful voices with which to could recite poems. We could not even sing very well. Instead, we used to hound the stores near the railway-station, looking for cheap jewelries.
In the small town that we grew up, three hours away from Kolkata, there wasn’t much else to do. Shops began to close at seven, and even if they didn’t, we were not expected to roam around the streets like loafers. Yes, that was the word our parents used to keep us close. We, for a change, would have loved to see how it felt like to be a bunch of girl-loafers. But we never had the courage to. We bickered with our mothers over the color of the salwar suit fabric, but did not fight with them over the curfew time. We cajoled our fathers into buying us extra pairs of earrings, but did not argue with them over their refusals to let us form a drama club. Consequently, we found ourselves back at our study-tables exactly at dusk. The little time we had to ourselves in the evenings, we spent dissecting our teachers’ married lives and dressing styles. That Seemadi, our English teacher, wore an embroidered blouse. That our physics teacher, Somadi, wore an inordinately unteacherlike fuchsia bra underneath her white blouse. We tried to speculate, if the latter was chosen by her husband. Needless to say, we didn’t have much information about the former. But, what we lacked in facts, we made up with imagination.
Bindu Didimoni did not concern us this way though. For those of us who were at the receiving end of her delegations of twenty sit-ups or an hour of kneeling in the sun, it was difficult to imagine she had a life outside the walled compounds of our Kanaklata Memorial Girls’ High School. It was hard to imagine that she had a family to take care of – a family where she wasn’t the dreaded head-mistress at all. A family where she was a wife, mother, sister-in-law or daughter-in-law instead.
Yet our parents, especially our mothers, could tell us different stories. We weren’t sure if we could put our faith in those tales. Often we just paid only half-mind to them, while trying to memorize desperately the year of the conclusion of the Anglo-French war. Just so that we could escape another session of Bindu Didimoni’s wrath.
Bindudi, as our mothers tended to call her, had arrived in our town almost immediately after her wedding to Aditya Mohan Choudhuri, the oldest son of Chandra Mohan Choudhuri, the ex-principal of our local college. A post-graduate student of History at University of Calcutta, at the time she tied her knot, Bindu Didimoni supposedly kept her distance from our mothers, the other newly-wedded brides in the town. Demak was the word they used to describe the way she behaved. A word which has no equivalent in English and can be best described as a combination of pride, confidence and being full of oneself. She never came to their houses, never joined their evening gossips, the walks to the Shiva-temple and bangle stores near the rail-station. Instead, they would see her in the mornings, walking briskly to board the train which would take her to her university in a city they marveled from afar. When they felt especially bitter or plain jealous, they would hold their own heads up, thrust their chests up front and would imitate amongst themselves the way Bindu Didimoni walked.
“Just like an office-babu,” they would giggle, nudging each other. The very thought of a woman as an office-babu supplied them with the mirth they needed to get through the day.
They would see her walking towards the local neighborhood library every Friday evening to return books and check out new ones. Our mothers rarely went to that place. No, Bindu Didimoni was never impolite. She would smile at them, nod a little bit and then continue towards her destination. Her polite indifference they attributed to her marriage in an educated home, to a man who was an officer in a bank and her own education. In contrast, our mothers had never gone to college, and our fathers were petty clerks and shopkeepers.
One Friday evening, Manjula Aunty, our friend Kanika’s mother, after much trepidation, stopped Bindudi to invite her for the weekly Ma Santoshi puja.
“All of us women would be there; we are also trying to arrange for some devotional songs afterwards. Why don’t you come too, Bindudi? We haven’t yet had a chance to get to know you at all and we would love to,” Manjula Mashi offered, feeling extremely lip-tight underneath. Not only had she never talked to Bindu Didimoni, she wasn’t quite sure how to begin to build up any kind rapport with a woman who walks like an office-babu.
“Santoshi Ma?” Bindu Didimoni supposedly said, rolling her eyes, sarcasm oozing from her voice. Those of us who had the pleasure of being her students knew how much contempt that voice could hold. How it could make the person standing in front of her feel smaller than a fly.
“Well well well, seems like even with thirty-three million gods and goddesses, the Hindus are not happy. They need to keep finding new ones from films,” and then she laughed. Our Bindu Didimoni laughed loudly, throwing back her head, so much so that the passers-by stopped to look at the two women talking in the middle of the street. Manjula Mashi didn’t know how to react, and quite uncharacteristically, found herself unable to come up with a retort.
And Bindu Didimoni continued.
“Besides, I am not someone who likes womanly gossip. I prefer my books and when I can find time for it, my own solitude. Don’t mind, this is nothing against you personally, but I don’t think I will fit into your world at all,” and without waiting for Manjula Mashi to react further, Bindu Didimoni walked away, leaving Manjula Mashi alone to deal with words like “womanly gossip”, “solitude”, “personally.”
Later that week, Manjula Mashi had reported her story to the rest, and all of our mothers and aunts had come to the conclusion that Bindu Didimoni must be either an atheist or a Kerestan, that is, a Christian. While it wasn’t a good thing for for anyone, it was especially bad for women. Why they entrusted such a woman with their daughters’ education, is a mystery we are still trying to resolve.
And then, there were those stories that kept trickling out of the pores of the professor’s home. How his bank manager son had been an alcoholic all through, and how only Prof. Choudhuri’s reputation in our town and beyond, had kept the stories of his drunkenness somewhat hidden. The marriage with Bindu Didimoni that Prof. Choudhuri had himself arranged, was supposed to have an ameliorating effect. But, it didn’t.
Instead, it came to be known that Prof. Choudhuri’s son and his two younger sisters were tied in a tight alliance of siblinghood, the primary purpose of which was to make Bindu Didimoni feel that she might be the woman their father had chosen for his son, but she really does not belong in the family. Not that he ever had to work too hard at mobilizing his sisters’ support. In the world we grew up and lived in, sisters-in-laws almost automatically became enemies, for reasons we were too young to understand then. His mother, that is Prof. Chaudhuri’s wife, had died when the son was only a teenager. So, there was no mother or mother-in-law to make matters more complicated.
As it was, none of Prof. Choudhuri’s erudition had rubbed off on his daughters. They had somehow scrambled through the routine BA courses and were now biding their time for marriage. It would probably have helped Bindu Didimoni if she joined their gossip about whose daughter was seen with whose son, or if she found pleasure in pouring over film-magazines along with them, or had at least pretended to. Instead, Bindu Didimoni preferred to maintain a polite but disdainful distance. The same demak that had prevented her from befriending our own mothers had also prevented her from building up any kind of meaningful connection with her husband’s sisters.
And Bindu Didimoni, as the story goes, loved to eat rice. It didn’t occur to her city-bred mind that a newly-wedded woman was not supposed to ask for second and third and fourth helpings, as if she was still staying at her father’s home.
“Oma, seems like our brother has brought in a peasant-girl,” Anushuya, the older of the two would say, putting her right palm on her cheek in the way she had seen Suchitra Sen do in the movies.
“Really, boudi, how can you eat so much at one go?” Priyambada, the younger one would pick up the cue.
Bindu Didimoni would continue to eat, tilting her head this way and that, trying to make sure that her tears were sliding towards her earlobes, rather than falling upon her plate. But then, there would be days when she would not succeed, giving her sister-in-laws a chance to revel in their success while feigning sympathy.
“Boudi, our dear sis-in-law, what’s making you cry, ei? Something we said? Come on, we were only teasing you! Didn’t you realize that it’s all innocent fun?”
Until one day, Bindu Didimoni stood up and pushed her plate away.
“You know, Anu and Priya, I can’t help eating all that rice once I sit down to eat. Being a peasant-girl and all. So, from now on, what I will do, I will just eat once every day. That way you won’t have to worry about all the money your brother is spending on my food.”
True to her words, as the story goes, she never again ate more than once every day, and that too, only one scoop full of rice with dal. No vegetables, no fish, let alone meat. Our mothers, who remembered a young Bindu Didimoni with a plump, round face and strong, muscled arms, would also talk about how over the next few years, they witnessed her becoming gradually thin, gaunt and needle-like in girth.
As for us, we never saw Bindu Didimoni have lunch during the school recess like the other teachers. She carried no lunchbox, neither did she visit the cafeteria for teachers. We did not have any difficulty in imagining how she had stood up for herself, how she had moved away her plate with one gesture of her hand, and how she had spoken back to her sister-in-laws. For us, this was exceptional.
Minu, who had worked at Prof. Choudhuri’s house as a domestic-maid for years, was the most reliable source of information for our mothers. And Minudi, as we all called her, brought in the news that by refusing to have any more fish with her rice, Bindu Didimoni wasn’t missing out on anything. For, ever since she had come to that house as the new daughter-in-law, her sister-in-laws had allotted to her the smallest and bitterest part of the fish.
“Ma go ma, look, it seems like our Bindu Boudi is leading the life of a widow even when her husband is alive and kicking,” Minudi would say, in between chewing the betel leaves and spitting out the red juice that trickled down her lips and chin. Our mothers, fascinated at the ease with which Minu brought in the gossip, salting them with the so-called forbidden issues and topics, would giggle nervously, while craving for more. Bindu Didimoni never had any children of her own. We now realize that this probably has to do with her relationship with her husband. Our mothers never talked or gossiped about this particular issue within our ear-shots at that time.
One of us suggested that there was a deep connection between Bindu Didimoni”s lifelong austerity and the way she preferred to keep our school premises completely free from the presence of the food vendors who would throng the gates during our recess, before and after the school hours? Who knows? And, she had a point. In public gatherings, like the wedding feasts of her former students, we had seen her refuse to eat many, many times. Resolutely, determinedly, without any sign of regret.
Bindu Didimoni walked in right in the middle of our giggles. It was our friend Kakoli’s older sister’s wedding, and we were busy smelling each others’ perfumes and flowers on the hair, throwing curiosity-filled glances at the groom’s brothers, cousins and friends, decked in benarasis borrowed from our mothers and aunts . She was wearing the same sari we had seen her in at another wedding a year or so ago. A white Murshidabadi print silk with small purple flowers all over. No make-up, no lipstick. Not even a bindi on her forehead. Her hair tied in her usual tight bun at the nape of her neck. She was clutching a book wrapped in pink gift-paper in her right arm. Bindudi never gave anyone anything other than books. And then only a hard-bound copy of Shakespeare’s Collected Works or Rabindranath’s Shanchayita.
So she walked in, was received by Kakoli’s uncles and then directed towards the area upstairs where the bride had been seated. We were too scared of her to follow directly, so we sneaked up from the staircase in the back. The great thing about wedding parties is that, one can always hide behind the flurry of silk sarees and scarves. Kumkum, Kakoli’s sister, who must have felt as intimidated as we did, nonetheless got up and touched her ex-teacher’s feet. Bindu Didimoni handed over the present, moved the muscles of her face as if feigning a smile, and raised her right hand to offer her blessings. No hugging, no touching. None of that “look at you, how you have grown, all ready to start your own family” – things other teachers would have said at a former student’s wedding. Instead, she said, “I need to leave early, please.” Her duty had been done. She had done some great favor to all concerned simply by showing up.
“She ki didimoni, you will leave before eating anything?” Kakoli-Kumkum’s Ma, our Malati Aunty, persisted.
“Yes, please, if you don’t mind. This was important for me. I just wanted to get a glimpse of Kumkum on her wedding day, especially since you all have taken the trouble to send an invitation. But now I really need to go,” Bindu Didimoni said, looking directly into Malati Aunty’s eyes.
“Omaaaa, trouble? What kind of trouble are you talking about, didi? This was our privilege… pleasure… duty… anyway, at least have some sweets…ore, whoever is there, will you please bring Bindu Didimoni a plate of sweets? Didimoni, please sit down, please. Just be with us for a little while more!” Malati Aunty pleaded again, while some of us scurried off to get the plate of sweets. Those who had stayed behind in the crowd of the bride’s room noticed that Bindu Didimoni never sat down, never made any efforts to join in with others. Instead, she stood exactly where she was when Kumkum had touched her feet, her eyes fixed on the jasmine garland surrounding the bride’s silk and gold-clad neck. Some of us did wonder if the jasmines had reminded her of her own wedding-night. But we never got to know.
When the plate of sweets was brought in, Bindu Didimoni looked them over and said to Malati Aunty, “Now what kind of madness is this, eh? You really think one human being can have these many sweets? Here, I will just take one rosogolla!” The tone of her voice suggested that she didn’t give Malati Aunty any more respect than she gave to her students. And after helping herself with just one, Bindu Didimoni dismissed the person with the plate, who happened to be one of her present students – a younger cousin of Kakoli and Kumkum– with a gesture of her hand.
“Didi, just one? No more? At least have a pantua… see, they are really good… Kakoli-Kumkum’s father ordered them from Kolkata,” Malati Aunty continued to plead.
“I didn’t say they are not good, did I? All I said was, I can’t eat too many sweets all at once. And what is more, I don’t like sweets that much anyway,” Bindu Didimoni said. Malati Aunty looked hurt, but didn’t insist anymore.
“Okay didi. Please bless my daughter so that she has a happy married life,” she said; leaving Bindu Didimoni alone. Bindu Didimoni nodded, then walked straight out of the room without even looking back once or exchanging a word with anyone else. Not even with the bride.
It was a Monday morning like any other. Except for the fact that Bindu Didimoni had ordered Bhola phuchkawalla out onto the streets from our school gate. Bhola, who was our town’s pride. One of the two novelties we routinely introduced any visitors to, the other being the six hundred year old Shiva temple behind the rail-station. Probably that’s why Bhola himself had dared to linger longer. Long after the other food vendors have given up and left for the greener pastures of the boys’ high school. But Bhola had more confidence on the tanginess of his tamarind-sauce, the heat of his potato-chick pea mix and the fluffiness of his flour balls. And we too continued to patronize him in between classes, school-bells and gateman Mathur’s warnings.
As usual, that Monday morning we were treating ourselves to a quick round of phuchka before joining the prayer-lines inside. We stood right outside the school gates, encircling Bhola’s phuchka-stand, our necks bent, eyes locked on Bhola’s fingers deftly mixing tamarind chutney and red-chilli dust into the potato mush. Fingers busy putting the fluffy little balls inside our mouths and the mouths busy swallowing them, before Bhola delivered the next round onto our little leaf-plates, we were so taken up by this act that we did not see Bindu Didimoni walking out of the school-gate into our midst. When we did, she had already thrown Kakoli’s leaf-plate on the street. And that’s exactly what she did to the rest too. She didn’t say a word to any of us, or to Bhola, and her face was as expressionless as the white of the classroom walls. We stared at her with open mouths, the remnants of Bhola’s tamarind-water, spicy mashed potatoes and chick-pea mix still tragically fresh on our fingertips and tongues. We kept casting plaintive looks at our leaf-plates, now lying on the sidewalk, Bhola’s tamarind sauce mixing with the water from the gutter. Bindu Didimoni strutted back inside the school premises, her back straight as a wooden ruler.
The rest of the dirty work of making sure that Bhola really left was delegated to Mathur. Needless to say, he finished it faithfully, making sure that Bhola did not come back to the school gate ever. As Mathur tried to herd us back in the direction of the school assembly, we heard Bhola mutter, almost to himself, “I am a poor man, that’s why na?” Upon hearing that, some of us stopped to look back at Bhola. His eyes did not meet ours – he had them fixed upon the flat aluminium pot in which he mixed his potato-mix. His fingers were busy smoothing out the lumps in the mash. Only much later did we remember that we had forgotten to pay Bhola.
Bhola never came back. We, Bhola’s customers, would have laughed at the whole thing had it been anyone other than Bindu Didimoni. But for us, it was just another of those things that confirmed the fact that fear was the only emotion we could ever feel for our Bindu Didimoni.
Then there were stories of the shriek. A shriek that pierced the night sky, waking up the inhabitants of our neighborhood, many of whom had rushed to their windows to see what was happening. Bindu Didimoni came running out on the porch, her hair disheveled, her peach-colored sari looking like it has been wrapped around her body in less than four seconds. Her husband rushed out after her, his voice breaking under its own weight.
“Daughter of a bitch, who do you think you are? From now on, this is how you will be treated. Exactly the way other men treat their wives.”
No one knew what had happened between Bindu Didimoni and her husband that night.
But our mothers felt happy. In spite of her education and attempts to set herself apart, Bindu Didimoni had finally become one of them. Ordinary. Striving to survive as wives and daughters-in-law within inhospitable homes.
But the truth is, Bindu Didimoni was nothing like them. When she came out in the public after that night, the sindoor had been rubbed off the parting in her hair. The town gasped, because no one there knew of any married woman, whose husband was still alive, alcoholic or not, deny his existence thus. Nor was she ever seen in public with him. Close associates of Prof. Chaudhuri reported that she had also stopped sleeping in the same room. Prof. Chaudhuri himself, bent double under shame, announced, “From now on, I consider Bindu to be my oldest daughter. And it is as a daughter that she would continue to live in this house. Not as a daughter-in-law.” But all those things happened ages ago. Before any of us were born. We have always seen Bindu Didimoni bare. Bare as an unwritten notebook. No hint of sindoor anywhere. No iron bangles or shankha adorning her arms like other married women. We were so used to her bareness that we never questioned it. We could not even imagine what Bindu Didimoni would look like with sindoor.
We knew who Bindu Didimoni’s husband was. It was impossible not to. He did not look that different from our fathers and uncles, except for the fact that he dressed differently. Finely polished black shoes instead of sandals. Full-sleeved button-downs ironed and tucked in, instead of bush shirts hanging over trousers. Other than that, he looked perfectly ordinary as we saw him hanging out in storefronts and tea-shops along with other men. As much as we tried to find the outward signs of his alcoholism, we could not. But what we really wanted to know was, what happened that night? The night Bindu Didimoni had rushed out to her front porch for the world to see?
Did her husband slap her? Did he pull her hair? Our imagination did not stretch beyond that. That there are other ways of punishing one’s wife did not occur to us then. But more than anything else, what we found to be absolutely unimaginable was that someone could punish our Bindu Didimoni in the same way she punished us. Even if that someone was her own husband. With our adolescents’ instincts, we had understood that Bindu Didimoni was different from any other woman we had known. It was just that we couldn’t figure out what to do with that knowledge – or with that difference.
Then, as it happens with all high-school teachers, Bindu Didimoni slowly began to fade from our minds. We left our hometown one by one – some for further education, some because of our marriages to men from other places, some because of both. And then, one year, in the summer, we all came back. We came back to spend a few days with our friend Kanika, who was leaving for America with her engineer husband, and who had planned a week with her parents before leaving the country We had all taken a few days off from our too-busy lives to come back to our hometown.
As it happened, our homecoming coincided with Bindu Didimoni’s retirement. This news somehow stirred up in all of us a lot of emotions for our old school and our old teacher. Emotions which, till that moment, we had buried under the cycle of chores. Especially now that it seemed we had reached that stage in our lives when we could laugh at her modes of discipline, instead of feeling scared and humiliated.
We met at the main crossroads at ten on the dot in the morning with the intention to show up for her farewell ceremony at our old school, but we never made it there. There was something that still didn’t quite make it easy for us to face Bindu Didimoni Instead, we just roamed around, checking out the new stores, giggling over lipstick shades and glass bangles. In this small town of ours, we became small girls again. Irresponsible daughters instead of dutiful wives and mothers. Just as we had decided to stop at our old Bhola phuchkawallah’s kiosk, we saw her. Our Bindu Didimoni that is.
Her hair had whitened considerably. Her gait had changed. She walked very slowly now, measuring each step. But she still had those same hornet-rimmed glasses, the same pursed lips and the same look in her eyes which still made us feel that we would be ordered to do ear squats right there on the streets. But what was even more shocking to us was her presence in front of Bhola’s kiosk. We stopped right where we were in between shops and alleyways, gawking at them.
There was a huge brown leather-bag from her right shoulder, fat and bulging, probably with the presents she had received at the ceremony. Bhola handed her a shaal-leaf bowl. Then came a spiced potato and tamarind juice filled ball. Then another. Then another. Until we forgot to keep count. And Bindu Didimoni ate. She gulped those phuchkas down, without looking up from her leaf-bowl. If she had, she would have noticed us, her old students staring at her as if they have seen a spook come alive.
After the phuchkas came the aloor dam. The curried yellow potatoes with fuschia onion bits, green chilies and coriander leaves on top. Bindu Didimoni ate away. That too with her fingers, moving the tongue and teeth inside her cheeks visibly and slowly. After the aloor dam was done, Bindu Didimoni stuck out her tongue and licked the leaf-bowl. Three, four, five times, until every bit of the curry had vanished into the pink and white of her mouth and the leaf-bowl had begun to shine like young leaves washed clean by raindrops.
With each movement of her tongue on the bowl, bits and pieces of what made Bindu Bindu Didimoni began to fall on the sidewalk. Like crusts of old, dried-up makeup. Her pursed lips. Frowning eyebrows. Smileless eyes. Hornet-rimmed glasses. Merciless utterances. They fell right in front of our feet, one by one. It was only then that we walked towards her, all of us, her old students and said, all in one voice, “Didimoni, kemon aachhen? How are you? Can you recognize us?”
Bindu Didimoni looked at us, her fingers still holding the leaf-bowl. Her eyes floated through our faces. As we touched her feet to show her our respect, we realized that none of us were young anymore. The teenager faces which Bindu Didimoni had known now had a few wrinkles of their own. Bindu Didimoni threw her leaf-plate on the ground, straightened her back and said, “So what are you all doing now? Happy housewives, eh? That’s all? Wasting your lives as usual… seems like I haven’t been able to teach you anything!” We looked at each other – what Bindu Didimoni had said was true.
Later that evening, our mothers informed us, not without a hint of scandal in their voices, that Bindu Didimoni had left her husband. She had moved out of Prof. Choudhuri’s home after his death, and now lived alone in a small two room house she bought at the edge of the town. Certain things never change. And certain others do, after all.